Nurburgring - German Endurance Championship - Round 1 Report

It was a day of mixed emotions on the Nürburgring as the German Endurance Championship held its first race of the season yesterday, April 3: the prospect of 3.5 hours of close racing action around the customary Nordschleife/GP circuit combination, in a race dedicated "to absent friends". The parade lap was led by the Porsche Edgar Dören would have driven this season, and a minute's silence was observed on the grid as a gesture of respect for the memory of a respected fellow competitor and long-time supporter of the series. How do you best pay homage to a racer? With a good race. And the race that was to follow had all the ingredients of a grand spectacle.

It was purely by coincidence, but a fitting coincidence nevertheless, that this event boasted the most high-profile entry list in recent memory, with three major German factory teams and a number of drivers fresh from the FIA-GT and ETCC races at Monza. The factories' main concern is always the 24 Hour race, which is not a part of the Championship; so the works teams pick and choose the Championship races that fit into their development programme. For all of them to show up this early in the year had been unheard of; yet here they were, in alphabetical order: Audi, BMW, and Opel.

The Abt Sportsline team brought an Audi TT-R for Karl Wendlinger, Patrick Huisman (not the only Huisman on location, see below), and Frank Stippler. BMW announced it would field an M3 GTR for Dirk Müller and Hans-Joachim Stuck; and then there were two of them, with an additional GTR entered for Duncan Huisman (brother of Patrick), Pedro Lamy, and Boris Said.

Team Phoenix had the Opel Astra ready, and 'Ring novice Marcel Fässler was preparing for a Master Class with last year's 24 Hours winner Volker Strycek. A second, privately run Astra in 2003 spec. appeared in the hands of the Schall family team; this is the first of the current DTM-based Specials to come into private hands. More are expected to follow. Ironically, the Schalls are Mercedes dealers; but Mercedes still has a "no Nordschleife" policy and would not release a CLK for competition in this series.

There was no sign of the works-supported Honda NSX yet, this car recently had its rollout at the Mine circuit in Japan. The privateer armada was led by the Alzen Motorsport 996 "Alien", with a 1.1 bar boost restriction this year. Did this slow the car down any? Following practice, the timing screens said "no" as the 996 beat the works cars to pole position. This team has changed to a new brand of tyres for 2004, which also happens to be the main series sponsor. In the paddock, the tyre people were quietly preparing some samples of their wet weather products as both the clouds in the sky and the weather forecasts spoke of an 80% chance of precipitation; but it would stay dry.

The Alzen Porsche led the field into lap 1, Jürgen Alzen at the controls; it did not lead anymore going into lap 2. Hans-Joachim Stuck had opted out of a TV commentator job at Bahrain in favour of this race; it proved to be an excellent choice. He has been a winner on the Nordschleife in all sorts of BMWs, from the compact 02 to the outrageous M1, would he add the M3 GTR to the list? The following laps were a demonstration of a Ringmeister at work. This was the all-white, brand new, Schnitzer-built car, and its handling was visibly better than that of its sister car, or any other car on the track, and Stuck made it fly. His team-mate Dirk Müller was one of the development drivers of the M3 GTR programme, and the man behind the wheel at the first GTR roll-out in 2001. Not surprisingly, he also did not miss a beat, and #680 made the race its own.

And where was the opposition? - The Alzen Porsche pulled into the pits for a lengthy stop, and rejoined the race several times only to return to the garage again. The Audi TT-R had a tyre blow out right at the beginning of the Nordschleife; 20 kilometers of crawling back to the pits saw their chances of a good finish disappear, 21st place was all they would get in the end. The private Scheid BMW had technical trouble all race long. The Viper seemed slightly off the pace; was it the new engine, or the new drivers? The V8STAR car with its Jaguar S-Type body and the Roush V8 engine also found itself losing several places in the early part of the race, but then Dirk Adorf and Ulrich Galladé got their heads down and made up some terrain; they eventually came home in fourth place, a lap down on the winners but the best non-works car.

If victory for Stuck and Müller was never in doubt, second place was a closer affair, contested between the other works BMW and the Opel coupé. The decision came on the 24th and last lap, when Marcel Fässler found the gear selection process increasingly difficult, and Boris Said, who will himself be working for GM later in the year, capitalised on Opel's bad luck and made it a one-two for Schnitzer and BMW.

With thanks, as always, to
Johannes Gauglica

1. Dirk Müller/Hans-Joachim Stuck, BMW M3 GTR, 3.33:29.461 (=24 laps)
2. Boris Said/Duncan Huisman/Pedro Lamy, BMW M3 GTR, -1:38.732
3. Volker Strycek/Marcel Fässler, Opel Astra V8 Coupé, -2.06.412 min
4. Ulrich Galladé/Dirk Adorf, Jaguar V8STAR, -1 lap
5. Wilhelm Dieter Kern/Bert Lambrecht, Porsche 996 GT3 MR
6. Wolfgang Destrée/Georg Berlandy/Kersten Jodexnis, Porsche 996 RS
7. Johannes Paczynski/Bernd Haid, Porsche 993 RSR
8. John Paul Baker/Dirk Schoysman, Porsche 911 GT3 Cup
9. Jörg Otto/Georg Weiss/Thomas Zinnow, Porsche 996 Cup
10. Daniel Cooke/David Croft, Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, -2 laps


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